How Rum Has Been Quietly Converting Whisky Drinkers: We Talk To S.B.S Rum's Co-Founder Joshua Singh
"The range of flavours was the key element that blew us all away with rum. I always say, all whisky taste the same... they all have a 'whisky profile' that in most cases can be identified."
For most rum lovers, the path to rum appreciation was paved with whisky bottles. It’s obvious why. For decades, whisky, especially single malts, dominated the narrative and prime advertising space, benefiting from an unparalleled marketing push that allowed it to gain more prominence than top Cognac houses. Back then, premium rum did not occupy a large part of the narrative.
However, the winds are changing. The sweet, rich and funky allure of rum beckons stronger than ever. If one was to ask someone steeped so deeply in the rum world as Joshua Singh, he would readily admit that even he too, started with whiskies. But Joshua would also point out that while whisky has its charm, whisky inevitably ‘tastes like whisky’. Rums, on the other hand, possess such an expansive universe of diverse flavor profiles unmatched by whisky. This is the very revelation has drawn many whisky lovers into the sweet embrace of rum.
Joshua Singh is the co-founder of the revered rum independent bottler, Single Barrel Selection Rum (S.B.S Rum), the ace behind 1423 World Class Spirits, Denmark's largest distributor of fine spirits. The company oversees a portfolio of more than 20 brands, and has not only put Denmark on the world spirits map but also cemented its reputation by bottling some of the most incredible single cask rums, thanks to their longstanding collaboration with renowned rum distilleries the likes of Jamaica’s Worthy Park.
We got a chance to sit down with Joshua, to talk about how his journey with rums began. We’ll dive into their approach towards selecting and blending rums, and receive a masterclass from Joshua on the ideal styles of rums that would resonate with different palates. We’ll also be asking Joshua some burning questions many have about the future of the rum industry, as well as the three rums he would bring with him if he were to be stranded on a deserted island.
Let’s speak to Joshua!
“While this undoubtfully will mean that some distilleries stop selling to brokers or IB’s, but it also means that new distilleries are opening all over the world, so as you say, ‘when one door closes another might appear’.”
– Joshua Singh’s take on the increasing difficulty of securing rum casks from popular distilleries.
[88 Bamboo]: Prior to discovering rums and co-founding 1423 and S.B.S., you and your co-founders were already self-identified whisky enthusiasts, actively sharing bottles and attending whisky festivals.
Could you share with us a little bit about yourself, how you first got into whisky? What is that first bottle or style of whisky that you really enjoyed?
[Joshua Singh]: Yeah that is right, we did start out as whisky drinkers, an interest we all inherited from our fathers who were avid whisky drinkers and like us used to share it together and in the end introduce us children to their fascination.
They were not big connoisseurs but rather just enjoyed whisky as a social thing, us “boys” took it a little further but were by all means still amateur drinkers with no specific profile, though I myself back in those days stayed far away from the peated profiles 😉. Something that I did not learn to appreciate before much later.
“A rum from Venezuela is highly different from a Jamaican or a Barbados rum and if we add other cane spirits like cachaca, clarin or grogue to it, the diversity becomes even more pronounced. It is that range of profiles and tasting notes that was the trigger and still is today a huge base for our love of rum.”
[88B]: You have shared that you and your co-founders discovered the world of premium rums at a whisky fair – this was the spark that led to you buying your own casks of rum and then founding 1423 and S.B.S.
How would you compare your whisky-discovery experience with your first discovery of rums? What about the realm of rums captivated you so much, “converting” you into a bigger rum devotee?
[Joshua]: The range of flavours was the key element that blew us all away with rum. I always say “all whisky taste the same” this is of course not true as whisky possess many different notes, however they all have a “whisky profile” that in most cases can be identified.
This is different in rum, a rum from Venezuela is highly different from a Jamaican or a Barbados rum and if we add other cane spirits like cachaca, clarin or grogue to it, the diversity becomes even more pronounced. It is that range of profiles and tasting notes that was the trigger and still is today a huge base for our love of rum.
“For the curious rum drinker, I would always go for the unaged rum… Unaged rum has long been misunderstood – at least in Europe – And I feel that when you take time to introduce people to it and give them a good introduction on what to expect and where the flavors come from, everyone can start to appreciate it.”
[88B]: The rum world is incredibly diverse, and your portfolio of brands seem to mirror that – from flavoured rums (Compañero, Cristóbal and Patridom), to quality blends (Rammstein, Pullitmut), to pure rums (S.B.S. and Bristol Spirits) and really geeky labels (S.B.S. Origin).
You guys also seem really passionate about educating drinkers on the diversity of the rum world, especially with your 24 Days of Rum Advent Calendar that makes a drinker discover a new type of rum each day of the calendar.
In that vein, could you recommend a couple of rums in your portfolio ideal for drinkers of various level of familiarity with rums? Which bottles would you recommend to folks of various levels and inclinations?
For someone completely new to sipping spirits
[Joshua]: For the person just starting out sipping spirits I would go for a sweetened rum, something like Patridom XO or Cristobal Nina, both distilled and aged in the Dominican Republic with typical notes of vanilla, caramel in the forefront and developing into chocolate, leather and wood in the back. The added sweetness I see always helps beginners in sipping spirits to feel more welcomed. I have also seen many times that the sweetness help people start sipping that had otherwise stayed away from neat spirits, the sweetness in these cases help us to include more people.
For a whisky drinker who hasn’t really tried rums
[Joshua]: For the whisky drinker there are multiple ways to go, Jamaica would be the obvious choice, as the Flavors usually work well with a whisky drinker. From my own brands my choice would be the Companero Gran Reserva, a blend made of rum from Jamaica and Trinidad (Worthy Park, Trinidad Distillers). While the Jamaican part is the primary and give the liquid the nose and the aroma, the Trinidad part comes in at the end and gives it a light and easy finish.
For a curious rum drinker
[Joshua]: For the curious rum drinker, I would always go for the unaged rum, in the past few years I myself have started drinking more and more unaged rum and we have now as well started releasing them under our S. B.S. Origins brand where we explore some of the distilleries that we source rum from for future S.B.S. bottles. Unaged rum has long been misunderstood – at least in Europe – And I feel that when you take time to introduce people to it and give them a good introduction on what to expect and where the flavors come from, everyone can start to appreciate it.
For a hardcore rum enthusiast
[Joshua]: For the hardcore rum drinkers S.B.S. Origins of course work well also, but ill choose a classic S.B.S. 1 of our aged versions. We have done almost 170 different releases here so far, so would be hard to choose just 1, so I would recommend to taste one of the young Jamaicans we have released the past 3-4 years with ageing of 2-3 years in virgin Oak, I really feel these versions have something quite unique to offer.
[88B]: For your S.B.S. brand, you select casks, monitor their maturity and sometimes experiment with unique cask finishings for which you guys have been well regarded for.
Could you walk us through your personal approach of tasting a sample, and deciding if this is a cask you’d like to add to your S.B.S. stock? What are some qualities of the rums you’ve tasted that have led you to decide “yes, this should be bottled as a S.B.S. rum” or at the very least “yes, this has potential to be a S.B.S. rum if given a few more years of maturation”?
[Joshua]: What is important to understand for not only S.B.S. but for all our brands is that this is a team effort. I might be the face of 1423 in many instances due to all my travels and the many festivals and fairs I attend, however I would never be able to do everything by myself. We have several “rum geeks” in our company and they all have requests to what we should bottle in S.B.S.. In the end the selection is primarily done by my business partner Thomas who will gather the requests and have samples prepared for tasting.
This also means that S.B.S. is not only made with one profile in mind but several. In the end it is the taste that is king and if the rum sampled is something we could imagine enjoying ourselves, then we are convinced that others will feel the same way. This is also why you will see so many different styles and profiles under S.B.S.
“Coming back to them just 3 months later, it turned out that the small amount of wine that had been absorbed by the wood had turned to vinegar, and this had now affected the whole cask!”
– Joshua, sharing about a shock he once experienced when experimenting with certain French wine casks.
[88B]: S.B.S. is well-known for producing some impressive cask-finished rums, including several intriguing S.B.S. Worthy Park Experimental Cask Series, and the often-cited S.B.S. Cuba 2012 finished in Virgin Oak.
From your numerous experimentations over the years, what interesting observations do you have on the effect of using various oak or cask styles? Could you share with us any examples of cask finishing experiments that have gone surprisingly well, and/or surprisingly badly?
[Joshua]: It is a good experience to play around with both different wood as well as different finishing as they can have a major impact on the finished product. In our latest release of S.B.S. we added 1 edition in what we call our “Experimental Series” where we bottled 4 different WPE aged for exactly the same time in 4 different Virgin Oak casks, using Oak from Denmark, Spain, USA and France. So, you have the same rum, same amount of ageing, same size of casks, produced at the same time and aged right next to each other, the only difference being where the Oak tree grew. This gives a unique perspective in wood as a living thing.
We have also tried times where it did not go as planned, a few years ago we bought a selection of casks that had been used to age a very old style of French wine. We ended up filling 2 of these with aged rum. 1 from Barbados and 1 from Jamaica. Coming back to them just 3 months later, it turned out that the small amount of wine that had been absorbed by the wood had turned to vinegar, and this had now affected the whole cask! We ended up having the Jamaican rum redistilled at a small craft distillery in Denmark while we left the Barbados rum to see what would happen. Now around 4 years later, the vinegar has disappeared and it has actually created a very interesting profile and it will for sure now be bottled as an SBS in the future 😊
“No doubt that high ester rum along with unaged rum and high ABV have become a trend, but it’s still important to remember that this is a trend among a small group of people – the geeks and connoisseurs.”
[88B]: S.B.S. Rum has a strong following of fans, but you have all along been very upfront that the margins made from S.B.S. are modest compared to your commercial rum brands. Then, we also see many whisky indie bottlers voicing concerns over the difficulty of sourcing barrels as they get increasingly expensive, Gordon & MacPhail recently throwing in the towel as an indie bottler.
Are you seeing similar trends and risks as a rum indie bottler, with certain distilleries’ rums becoming impossible to secure? How do you see the rum indie bottling scene shaping up, and what do you see the changing value of independent bottlers will be for rum producers?
[Joshua]: The category of rum is growing and while this undoubtfully will mean that some distilleries stop selling to brokers or IB’s, but it also means that new distilleries are opening all over the world, so as you say, “when one door closes another might appear”. So, it is more a question of exploring the world as there is still plenty of rum out there that we have not even discovered yet.
[88B]: Moving on to blended rums, you guys also have many years of extensive experience bottling rums of this category. Could you walk us through your general approach to blending rums, and how should a good blended rum taste in your opinion?
[Joshua]: I am by all means not a professional blender, though the team and I have made blends ourselves we also rely on professional expertise from the distilleries and producers we work with to create the best blends. In the end, the best blend is what suits the final consumer profile you are looking for. If we go back to some of the previous rums we spoke about, Companero Gran Reserva where you combine different ages from different distilleries to Cristobal Nina where you combine different ages from the same distillery. They are both perfect blends in my opinion, but still highly different rum created and produced for 2 different types of drinkers.
"I believe we will see more [rums] coming from Asia and Africa in the coming years where there are more and more existing distilleries coming to market."
[88B]: Looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest trends in rums (we’ve most recently had a wave of excitement about high ester rums)?
[Joshua]: No doubt that high ester rum along with unaged rum and high ABV have become a trend, but it’s still important to remember that this is a trend among a small group of people – the geeks and connoisseurs. If we look outside that group, I believe the trend is more towards flavoured and spiced rum. You see brands like “Dead Man's Fingers” from the UK and similar from other countries breaking through and gaining retail listings in large super market chains quickly, brands like these are outselling the high ester rum 1,000,000 : 1. So, though we might say we are trendy with our geeky rum, we are far behind rums like these :D
[88B]: Also, which countries do you see the most exciting rums coming from in the near future? Would we for instance be seeing more Asian rums making an appearance in S.B.S. line-up, such as the S.B.S. Thailand 2016?
[Joshua]: Yes definitely, rum is made all over the world where we have tropical climate and we also see distilleries popping up in Denmark, UK and other old climates where they will import the molasses. Personally, I believe we will see more coming from Asia and Africa in the coming years where there are more and more existing distilleries coming to market, but even from Northern Europe you see more and more quality coming out. We have in our warehouses several interesting things ageing for the coming years, and from non-traditional origins.
[88B]: Over the years, your work with 1423 has taken you on so many adventures in the rum scene along with the friends you started 1423 with. Could you share with us a particularly fond memory you’ve had? What are some of the biggest personal highlights for you so far?
[Joshua]: Ohhh that is a tough one! There are so many great experiences from these past 15 years in the industry that it would be impossible to stick with one… So, can I get 3 highlights?
- My first trip to Jamaica where I discovered 3 of the 6 distilleries and laid the groundwork for our cooperation with Worthy Park.
- When we created our first brand back in 2012, we had already released our own bottles prior to this. But we released our first brand in 2012 which had taken our whole team through many samples and many different ideas for labels, brand names, profiles and much more. To see the first bottle was for sure a highlight!
- My first visit at DDL (Demerara Distillers Limited) in Guyana in 2018. Not only did I have the chance to see all these legendary stills, PM, Versailles, Enmore etc, I also met my future wife on that trip.
[88B]: Finally, if you could only bring three rums with you to a deserted island, which would they be?
Worthy Park Single Estate, my favourite sipping rum. I like to drink it from a big old fashioned whisky tumbler with some ice when I relax.
B.S. Origins – French Antilles. This Grand Arome with the flavours of green olives, vinegar and fermented fruit is something truly unique and I love that aroma.
Companero Extra Anejo. Hey, who doesn’t like chocolate? – With its aroma of Cacao, this is a treat that works well neat, on ice or in cocktails.
[88B]: Joshua, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you with us. Thank you for the insightful peek into your world of rums, as well as so eloquently articulating the magic of rums to anyone who is curious about this vast category. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on getting hitched! 🎊